Drivers could see advertisements splashed across the back and flanks of Summit Stage buses before the end of the season if a plan to generate additional revenue for the transit system's tight budget gains traction.
With the Stage's savings accounts down to just a few hundred thousand dollars from as high as $4 million a few years ago, transit officials are considering exterior advertising as a new source of revenue to help rebuild reserves.
"We are looking for ways to meet our financial needs," Summit Stage board president Kent Willis said. "Having some additional revenue would certainly be beneficial to the Stage, so we're trying to look at every possible source that we can."
Exterior ads could generate an estimated $500,000 to pad the transit system's $7 million budget.
But county and town sign codes may prohibit outside vehicle advertising for any entity but the one to which the vehicle belongs.
Still, Summit County Commissioners said they might be willing to consider changing the rules.
"The dollar amount is high enough that we need to look at it closely," Commissioner Thomas Davidson said. "We have to be careful about stepping out on a slippery slope."
Officials said changing sign regulations for public buses would mean changing the rules for all vehicles in the interest of fairness, which created concerns that Summit County would begin to see advertisements all over its roads.
"We'd like to do it," Summit Stage director John Jones said. "But we've got some hurdles we've got to go over. It will be a first for the Stage, but we're going to take a look at it."
It is unclear which town governments have sign codes restricting exterior advertising.
If ads did appear on the sides of local buses, transit officials said there would be restrictions. They likely would not sell ads that wrap around the entire bus, as they make it difficult for drivers to see through the windows. They also wouldn't allow advertising for anything illegal.
"We get a lot of federal grants and federal dollars," Willis said. "So we're taking the position that medical marijuana, or just marijuana is an illegal activity under federal laws, and all of that would be prohibited.
Stage officials are doing additional research to determine exactly how much money bus advertising might generate. If the plan gains approval, advertising contracts could be in place before the end of the winter season, Willis said.
The Summit Stage, a free bus service that provides access to central locations in Summit County and some transit to neighboring counties, is independently funded primarily by a dedicated mass transit tax.
The transit system faced a $300,000 budget shortfall in 2012 after a year of high fuel and personnel costs, but has a balanced budget for 2013.